WhatsApp:Twitter:Facebook — shaping App usage in India

India has witnessed a mammoth usage of Orkut in the past. And now once again a major adoption has happened with WhatsApp and Facebook while Twitter remains being used only by a certain section of the society.

The India census of 2011 observed that almost half of Indian homes (we are talking of about half of 246 million households here), have cell phones but no toilets.

So what’s the mystery behind this ? Is it lack of education about personal and public hygiene or a low price point of a cell phone and the rich app ecosystem that is highly attractive ? The comparison between these two aspects may sound bizarre but the key to a huge change in the lifestyle of the population at the bottom of the pyramid may lie here.


Bangalore — The silicon valley of India

Fast forward to 2015, let’s look at the ‘Silicon Valley of India’ — Bangalore.

One morning over a cup of coffee at Costa, a friend showed me how a fabric merchant was sharing the latest prints via WhatsApp with all his customers. In fact, this vendor had converted WhatsApp into a mini CRM channel. The vendor did not have a website, but a Facebook page where he would upload pictures once in a while.


Smart phone utility, price point and App usage

If you are in India, in one of the cities where there is internet connectivity, I can bet with no iota of doubt that you would come across various blue collared service men with a smart phone on which he has installed Facebook and WhatsApp.

A little more probing and you would very surprisingly discover that the average monthly income of a doorman would be roughly about Rs 8000 ($120) and that of the Chef at one of the mid sized ‘desi’ restaurants would be between Rs 15,000 to Rs 20,000 ($225 to $300). But one would notice, that they would have a smart phone or would be yearning for the next Xiaomi or Micromax to hit the stores.

Curious about their smart phone usage, I shadowed some of these users at Bangalore and here is what I observed :

Busy with a smart phone

1. These users speak mostly their mother tongue (Kannada, Bengali etc) and Hindi or Tamil

2. Service providers who were dealing directly with the socially upper class in mid-level business transactions had smart phones (Android) while others had feature phones or simple handsets

3. Majority of smart phone users among this group were observed to be male and not a single female was observed with a smart phone

4. Possessing a smart phone among this group of people was a symbol of status and was majorly used as a cheap source of entertainment

5 Very few smart phone users from this group used it as a productivity tool to grow their business (eg. to share a catalogue etc)

Apps used by the Indian masses

Most of these users had Facebook and WhatsApp on their mobile phones. They also used native video players, played mobile games and knew how to save a number to a name. Some of them also knew how to shop from Flipkart or OLX, using the app. In most cases, the apps were installed by the vendor from whom the phone was purchased. This actually made the users feel incentivised and satisfied with their purchase decision.

Android smart phones have gained popularity with the Indian masses

Why is Twitter not so popular at the bottom of the smart phone pyramid ?

Has something triggered a question in your mind till now ? If you are an averagely earning person in India, living in one of those tall apartment buildings, working in an MNC, then read ahead.

WhatsApp and Facebook have successfully become the love of your life, but wait, have you heard of Twitter ?

Of course, you have ! But do you use it ? How often ? and Why would you ?

What’s there in Twitter that you would want to do ? Most of your friends measure their popularity with the ‘Like’ meter of Facebook, and very few with ‘Followers’ on Twitter. (Facebook also does have a ‘Follow’ feature but probably is not as popular as it’s other offerings)

So why waste time there struggling with 140 characters ? Direct messages on Twitter recently removed this limit, but you want to shout out to the world ! You enjoy being the ‘Admin’ of some group on WhatsApp and you crave for 100+ Likes on your next profile pic.

In this app landscape, Twitter seems to be largely restricted to a very niche intellectual class in India, which is being ruled by WhatsApp and Facebook.

The sole reason for Twitter not gaining popularity may be because of the low levels of gratification that it has to offer, which appeals only to a minor set of the total smart phone user base. In other words, what do you ‘earn’ out of Twitter ? Retweets or someone Favouriting your tweet, may be is not as popular as the ‘Like’ button on Facebook; barring of course a scenario where your original Tweet gets retweeted by a celebrity or if number of retweets becomes very large.

In recent times, we have seen two interesting moves in this space. Facebook expanded the Like button to introduce emojis.

Twitter on the other hand changed certain terminology in their UI, to make it similar to the more standard paradigms, by killing the ‘Favourite’ button and replacing it with ‘Like’.

In fact, interestingly, during October 2015, Twitter brought in a special emoji to celebrate Diwali.

The Diwali emoji from Twitter

So with all these changes happening, does it mean that Twitter is planning something new ? Something specifically for the Indian market ?


Line of influence and buying behaviour in an Indian metropolitan city

India once loved Orkut very much, when ‘Yahoo groups’ were somewhat popular in certain circles. India now has a much higher user base for Facebook and WhatsApp as compared to Twitter.

The place where you live would have a cityscape very similar to the image shown here.

A typical cityscape from a neighbourhood at Bangalore

Roughly, the following diagram shows one of the directions in which the adoption is happening with the Indian masses. The line of influence begins with :

a. The intellectual class — THE INFLUENCERS — educated individuals,who live in high rise apartments. They are heavy users of smart phones.

b. Blue collar ‘smarter lot’ — EARLY ADOPTERS — belonging to the upper half of the Indian masses, employed by startups like Ola, Flipkart etc to perform ground level duties and have learnt how to use apps.

c. Blue collar — FOLLOWERS — belonging to the lower half of the Indian masses, who provide low & mid level services, and still use simple or feature phones.

Smart phone usage among the Indian masses — Line of influence

Now, let us look into the second direction, which influences smart phone and app usage among the masses. The fundamental question being, ‘Why do they even buy a smart phone ?’

Shops selling mobile phones in India (source : various free images available online)

The salesman at the mobile shop plays an important role in the buying behaviour of the target users.

Most of them, come to buy a new phone and are attracted by the features of a smart phone. To make the offer more lucrative, these small shops offer to install apps, pump in songs and games into these mobile phones.

These users come in groups to buy a phone. The shopkeeper also shows them various cheap smart phones made in China and most of the time successfully convince them to buy one.

The apps which the target users install are majorly under the influence of the shopkeeper or their peers, who are already using smartphones.

Why do the Indian masses use Facebook and WhatsApp ?

Enthusiastic with the primary observations, I traced two of individuals on Facebook, whom I was initially shadowing to understand a day in their lives. Both their Facebook pages revealed a very similar usage pattern in terms of the activities carried out on Facebook.

Usage pattern on Facebook (The images have been suitably modified to respect the privacy of the individuals)

In summary, though Facebook and WhatsApp has picked up largely with the Indian masses, their usage was restricted to certain actions only.

I have attempted to summarise the usage, in this table.

Usage pattern : Facebook and WhatsApp

Can Twitter become popular with the Indian masses ?

It would be a real challenge for Twitter to penetrate this market. The gap that Twitter can hit, is by possibly becoming an utilitarian product with services and support targeted at the needs of mass mobile users in India.

However, to gain higher acceptance among the masses, these habits prevalent among the Indian masses are few hurdles which Twitter would have to overcome :

1. The concept of broadcasting a ‘status update’ is unknown to the target users (this being the fundamental philosophy associated with a Tweet)

2. They are not familiar with the paradigm of prefix to a text i.e. the # tag

3. To solve any problem, they depend on a known ‘friend’ (channel of support is currently a human being from the neighbourhood)

4. Facebook and WhatsApp are sources of cheap entertainment

5. Smart phone usage is limited to the male earning member of the family

6. All of them use Android phones (Samsung, Micromax, Karbon and some unknown Chinese makes) — no iPhone or Microsoft phone was noticed (Android phones are at an affordable price point for the Indian masses)

7. They do not care/understand about the software version on their phone


Design hypothesis for ‘India’ Twitter to target the masses

Designing a product for the Indian masses is a very complex task. It would require an in depth understanding of the customer base.

These pointers can possibly become the broad strokes for creating that ‘secret’ product :

#1. Autofill hashtag or hide hashtag from the surface while broadcasting messages; modify the UI to ease out on-boarding & learning curve for users to understand the concept of broadcasting

#2. Promote messaging through Twitter; push it as the primary action

#3. Rebrand the word ‘Tweet’ in local language to increase it’s appeal and acceptance (similar strategy to what Nokia did around 2004, when they promoted SMS as Saral Mobile Sandesh)

#4. Introduce location based tweets / Nearby tweets (introduce concept of group messaging)

#5. Introduce stickers within Twitter messaging

#6. Incentivise 1:1 and 1:n messaging, by awarding phone top ups or benefits which are of direct value or of social relevance. The incentive can be digital text books optimised to view on mobile, movie clips, hygiene products etc (Gamify)

#7. Introduce video broadcasting (Periscope like capabilities)

#8. Position Twitter app as a ‘trust worthy’ problem solving platform for local self help groups

#9. Pre-install Twitter app on packed handsets

Penetration model for Twitter

Make for India

India probably needs a product which would come and fill the gaps in the lives of the Indian masses and be of product of utility to them.

Only time would tell that a mature product like Twitter, who brought the #tag to the world, would come and fill this gap or an original product from an Indian startup would address this need.

Make for India